Forget Worldviews: Manifesto for a Postmodern Religious Studies

The point of departure for this post is that the much-touted Worldviews paradigm (REC 2018) — in much the same fashion as the World Religion Paradigm — conceives of religions as substances and as containers to which can then be ascribed traits and qualities, into which can be poured particular collections of beliefs, practices, founders, texts and institutions. Such conceptions lead to stereotypes, clichés and essentialism, and hinder the cultivation of critical religious literacy.

An alternative is required and, as such, I propose conceiving religions broadly in terms of relations rather than as substances or containers, and specifically as assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 2014). An assemblage is a multiplicity of interconnected things. What would this approach mean for the study of Christianity?

In 1999–2000 I conducted fieldwork around Mount Banahaw in the Philippines. I was interested in religious groups and churches that had emerged amidst (i) complex historical encounters between Catholic and Protestant missionary activity in the context of Empire and revolution; (ii) gendered Southeast Asian conceptions of power and healing; and (iii), more recent post-colonial, nationalist, urban and diasporic imaginaries and networks.

Asymmetric interactions in Banahaw generated a religion called Rizalism, which was characterised by vernacular Biblical interpretation fused with local ontology, improvised monumental architecture, the configuration of José Rizal — a 19th century Filipino doctor and novelist executed by the Spanish colonial regime in 1896 and later elevated to the status of national hero — into a messianic personage and, with regard to the largest of the Rizalist churches in Banahaw the Ciudad Mistica de Dios — the building of a “city” that challenged the urban imaginaries of the Spanish and American colonial projects and the Philippines’ own urban modernity. The Rizalism assemblage, then, drew and related together a number of previously distinct elements to constitute a new religious formation.

A further example from the Philippines concerns El Shaddai, which is neither Catholic nor Protestant and is both local and global. El Shaddai is a Catholic charismatic-Pentecostal group that, through mass rallies, radio and television programmes, digital media and a mega-church complex, links various locales across the archipelago with Manila and numerous Pinoy diasporas in Asia, Europe and the Americas. If traditional Catholic religiosity in the Philippines is centred on the defined space of the parish church and mediated through the priest, El Shaddai generates a mediatised transmission chain that links together domestic spaces, virtual spaces and numerous locales with rallies and worship in Manila, by broadcasting the latter live on various media platforms. The El Shaddai assemblage, then, also combines, relates and connects a host of previously distinct elements and gives them a new form.

An ethnographic perspective on El Shaddai and the Rizalists of Mount Banahaw opens out the lived and improvised, do-it-yourself dimensions of these assemblages. Both have been generated through everyday combinations of previously distinct elements. An astronomer’s perspective makes visible how each of these assemblages has coalesced as a result of a series of asymmetrical, historical “generative interactions” (Tremlett 2021) between missionaries, technologies, landscapes and more. Combining these perspectives reveals complex processes of combination-relation-articulation by which different things arrive in each other’s orbit to become an assemblage and processes of disintegration-separation wherein those orbits are disturbed and the elements pulled apart, perhaps to decompose altogether, or to fall into the orbit of something else.

A postmodern Religious Studies interested in Christianity would begin with such groups because they demonstrate the existence not of a distinct, single worldview called Christianity but rather a diversity of christianities assembled across multiple scales of the social (local, national and global). Critical religious literacy does not reside in being able to reproduce the ideologically policed borders of Christianity as a single tradition, but in being able to analyse its interactions and relations with the different scales and dimensions of the social, using multiple lenses (see Moore 2010).

This post was originally published on Socrel’s blog at Medium: https://socrel.medium.com/forget-worldviews-manifesto-for-a-postmodern-religious-studies-85fbcf061b74. Reposted with permission and gratitude.

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Totem Latamat has retired 

By Graham Harvey 

In a previous blog I celebrated the journey of Totem Latamat across the UK. The Totem was carved from a single cedar tree, felled with appropriate ceremonies, in the forest of the municipality of Chumatlán near the east coast of Mexico, and travelled to the COP26 Climate Change talks in Glasgow.  

The artist, Jun Tiburcio, had been commission to carve Totem Latamat by Border Crossings, a UK company which organises the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations. Covid necessitated changes in the way the festival usually works. Rather than bringing Indigenous performers, speakers, chefs, films and art installations to the UK, Border Crossings presented – and continues to present throughout 2021 and into 2022 – online and onscreen events. But Totem Latamat was commissioned to deliver a message to the COP26. 

Having visited seven locations across England, and having been welcomed in a remarkable range of events involving local communities and national media, Totem Latamat arrived at The Hidden Gardens in Glasgow. This was also the base for the Minga Indigena – a Latin American Indigenous collective which has sent delegations and activists to many previous COPs. A ceremony to light a fire that burnt throughout the COP26 weeks included greetings to Totem Latamat. Latamat and the Minga Indigena were among the many works of art (working art) and communities presenting Indigenous experiences, expectations, encouragements and educative messages to the COP26 negotiators and the larger world.  

Latamat is in some ways a complex work of art. It includes a carving of an eagle, a woman, a snake, plants, cosmic beings, hummingbirds and more. Each element carries more than one meaning. You can hear Jun Tiburcio’s summary here. However, people who encountered Latamat have been encouraged to reflect on their own responses and interpretations. Border Crossings have posted some of these on social media. Without diminishing the complexity of Totem Latamat or precluding people from responding in their own ways, it might be suggested that the Totem’s message is simple. It can be summed up in three statements:  

  • Climate change demands urgent action because all species are being affected.  
  • If humans actively celebrated our place in the larger-than-human community we might take action more urgently.  
  • Indigenous people recognise human kinship with other species and put respect for “all our relations” at the heart of their efforts to live well.

Totem Latamat’s presentation of kinship, respectful relationships, the necessity of urgent action and the celebration of life has been seen in diverse locations and at COP26. Having done the work required, Totem Latamat has now retired. In a ceremony at the Crichton in Dumfries, the Totem’s journey was celebrated, the message was acknowledged, and the invitation to carry the message further was accepted.  

Totem Latamat was dramatically pulled over to lie on – and partly in – the ground. Rather than becoming a monument or museum piece, the Totem will decay gracefully. This was always part of the plan – and part of the gift from Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community. Totem Latamat’s final resting and rotting also involve the return of carbon to the Earth – a gift from one land to another. A final vital message worthy of the end of journey to challenge carbon consumption and to celebrate the larger-than-human community.  

Three themes are of particular interest to me in relation to the Totem’s odyssey: cosmology, ceremony and conscience. Remembering that “Latamat” means “Life” in Jun Tiburcio’s Tutunakú language reinforces the visual recognition of all kinds of life in the carving. The world is here as a community of aquatic, aerial and terrestrial beings together making things happen, shaping reality, propelling evolution in their multi-species community. Many of us who met the Totem demonstrated our kinship with the world by small or large ceremonial acts. Without anyone saying “this is a good thing to do” many people touched the hands of the eagle warrior at the base of the Totem, palm to palm. The final laying down ceremony (much of which can be seen in the film below) extended these more spontaneous greetings into somewhat more dramatic acts. And Totem Latamat’s cosmology of kinship and invitation to do ceremony encourage an ethic of sharing and participation. In describing the Totem, Jun Tiburcio says that when people hear the message brought by hummingbirds (archetypal messengers in his culture), we are invited to carry the message further, becoming hummingbirds ourselves.

Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

Sinking House, Bath, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Materialising Climate Concern and Activism

By Marion Bowman

Below the iconic Pulteney Bridge in the centre of Bath there is currently a striking installation, Sinking House by artist Anna Gillespie. As nearby signs explain, ‘Sinking House is a message of warning, and hope, to communities across the world – including leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) – to address the issues, reach for lifelines and act now against the intensifying threat of climate change’. This is just one example of a flurry of contemporary COP26 related creativity I’ve been following in recent weeks.

There will be lots of material culture on display both during and after COP26. I am fascinated by material culture, and what lies behind and goes into the construction of artefacts, for as folklorist Henry Glassie points out, ‘we live in material culture, depend upon it, take it for granted, and realise through it our grandest aspirations’. We make, use, gift, look at and interact with objects to express relationality with other humans (living, dead and future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us. This is highly relevant as we contemplate what we’ve done to the planet and what needs to be done now.

In relation to environmental crises generally, and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) to be held in Glasgow 31 October–12 November 2021 specifically, numerous artists and other creative practitioners have been ‘materialising’ the global concerns raised by climate change and the need for urgent action. Here I’m drawing attention to just a few of the ways in which increasing numbers of people have become involved in acts of material creative activity of various types, as through material culture they seek to express their concerns, demand change and raise awareness of the pressing issues facing the world. From individual creations to nationwide and international collaborative projects, people are finding ways to provoke thought, and to give expression to their anger, fears and determination.  As one crafter put it, it’s about making something to make a difference.

Stormy Seas

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine.

STORM by Vision Mechanics, Saturday 2nd Oct 2021, on Storm Walk to Scottish Maritime Museum, Irvine. Photograph courtesy of Scottish Maritime Museum.

Environmental concerns and climate awareness are of course triggered and expressed through a variety of media. The broadcast of the BBC programme Blue Planet II in 2017, highlighting the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, is credited with an extraordinary rise in environmental awareness and practical responses in relation to the plastic problem; the proprietor of an open-air fruit and vegetable stall in Bath, for example, very directly dates the upsurge in popularity of his business and people’s desire not to have pre-packaged produce to that programme. Such triggers have significant outcomes if they can help move people beyond the despair of what is happening to thinking about practical means through which they can address issues.

A deliberately striking, creative response to the problem of pollution and climate change was the creation of STORM, a ten-metre tall ‘goddess of the sea’ made from recycled materials, the creation of Symon Macintyre/ Vision Mechanics. STORM first appeared for the launch of Scotland’s official year of Coasts and Waters 2020/2021, and after Covid restrictions STORM has been out and about again throughout Scotland, being the focal point in October of a ‘Storm Walk’ from Irvine Beach Park to the Scottish Maritime Museum there, after a ‘Community Clean Up’. Works of art such as this raise awareness and create temporary ‘ambient activism’ in a variety of locations, arresting the attention of both participants and bystanders. The Scottish Maritime Museum is also hosting Climate Change Activism: Protest Posters Workshop for both the 12-15 and 16+ age groups at the end of COP26, to encourage ongoing grass roots creativity and involvement.

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021.  Photograph Marion Bowman. 

Mermaids’ Tears, based on Kurt Jackson’s original artwork, rendered by Louise Trotter in textiles (including string and plastic fibres collected from beaches), on display at Dovecote, Edinburgh, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Among many other artistic responses to the plastics problems are artworks by artist Kurt Jackson, who in 2016 produced Mermaids’ Tears, the title referring to an alternative name for nurdles, the tiny plastic pellets which wash up on shores in their billions. Although the original painting was sold as a fundraiser for Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), in 2021 ahead of COP26 Jackson approached the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh to suggest working with the famous tapestry studio to create a textile rendition of Mermaids’ Tears. This artwork was executed in collaboration with Dovecot weaver Louise Trotter, and forms the focal point of an exhibition running from October 2021 to February 2022 at Dovecote, alongside other awareness raising collage works by Jackson which feature painted sea and beachscapes, with washed up debris incorporated.

However, in addition to the responses of professional artists and craftspersons, the environmental crisis and COP26 have inspired many others to make something to make a difference.

‘Mass-craftivism’ and Crafting Quakers

One undoubted side effect of the Covid 19 lockdowns has been the huge increase in people participating in, rediscovering or taking up craft activities like knitting, sewing, crochet and quilting, as for many the lockdowns opened up time for such pursuits. The Stiches for Survival initiative, for example, describes itself as ‘Mass-craftivism to put the Earth centre-stage at COP26’, a mass participation project whereby assorted crafters are knitting, crocheting, stitching, and crafting in assorted ways panels to make up a 1.5 mile-long ‘scarf’ (representing the 1.5°C target in the Paris Agreement) of climate messages addressed to the COP26 negotiators. After being displayed at Glasgow Green during COP26, the plan is for the scarf to be creatively repurposed into blankets for refugees and other communities who need them, though with some sections being kept for an exhibition and further use in campaigning.

Ballot Paper, textile panel on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Ballot Paper, textile panel. The Loving Earth Project, Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The Religious Society of Friends, better known as Quakers, have long been involved in campaigns and practical activism in relation to peace and social justice issues.  The Quaker Arts Network’s Loving Earth Project is centred around asking people to address three big questions:

  • How does the climate crisis threaten places, people and other things you love?
  • What action is needed to reduce the risk of harm?
  • How are you helping to make this happen?
Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

Flooded Valleys, textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum  Dumbarton, October 2021. Photograph Marion Bowman.

 

As the project’s website explains, the idea is to help people engage creatively with these questions, without being overwhelmed, using a range of creative, contemplative and sharing activities. Inviting people to create a 30cm x 30cm textile panel illustrating their responses to these questions, and writing a short account of the panel theme and what actions people are taking personally, has produced enthusiastic, imaginative and visually stimulating responses. Over 400 panels have been sent in already, and many with accompanying texts are displayed on the project website gallery. During COP26 there will be six displays of Loving Earth panels in and around Glasgow, with textile workshops at the larger venues. Over 20 displays of groups of panels have been held already, and more will appear in venues around the UK following COP26 (for information on exhibition venues, see here).

Linda Murgatroyd of the Quaker Arts Network told me:

‘It’s been so exciting and touching to see how the project has been helping people take positive and joyful steps towards greater sustainability. Our online conversations have sometimes been very powerful, especially as we make connections with people in different parts of the world and hear what’s happening there. There are huge issues we all have to face, and so far most of our politicians are reluctant to take the actions recommended by scientists.  But everyone can do something if we choose to, though we may need help to work out what.‘

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project - Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

Textile panels on display at  The Loving Earth Project – Scottish Maritime Museum Dumbarton, October 2021. Photographs Marion Bowman.

I visited the Loving Earth Project Exhibition which will run until January 2022 at The Scottish Maritime Museum, Dumbarton branch. Explaining her enthusiasm for the project, Nicola Scott, Exhibition and Events Officer, Scottish Maritime Museum, said

‘I was really happy to host the exhibition as I liked that it was a community project. The nature of community projects, although the panels are made individually, is the idea of collaboration and coming together for one purpose. I think this sentiment is very important in terms of climate change and improving the conditions of the environment. The exhibition encourages people to get involved and the additional funding we got from Museum Galleries Scotland allowed us run workshops for people to make their own Loving Earth Project Panel. I know these sessions were important to the Loving Earth Project organisers as the purpose is to let people meditate over the issues of climate change without it overwhelming them and also discuss positive change that can be made with others who attend the sessions. It was a great atmosphere that fostered creativity, discussion and a sense of community.’

Like Stitches for Survival, the Loving Earth Project has encouraged and enabled people to ‘materialise’ a range of emotions and experiences, and in doing so to reflect and discuss with others the major issues to be addressed at COP26 and beyond.

Getting the Message

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

Lin Patterson’s Quaker Banner, Copenhagen, 2009. Photograph courtesy of Lin Patterson.

A final example of material culture to look out for at COP26 – and one that will be very evident in the next couple of weeks – is the banner. Materially expressing allegiances and protest through banners is a well-established tradition, from religious and trades union processions to Ban the Bomb demonstrations, the Greenham Common Peace Camp and Extinction Rebellion events. My neighbour in Bath, Lin Patterson, is a Quaker and veteran climate activist. She attended the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, for which she made a banner. Intending to be in Glasgow for COP26, and realising that one side was blank, Lin decided to ‘populate’ it further for COP26. Lin made an appeal for messages through the Quaker publication The Friend:

‘This is an invitation to all UK Friends to send brief messages from the heart to be written onto a large, (8 1/2′), Quaker banner going to COP26. This banner was carried in the streets of Copenhagen during the Climate Summit of 2009, with letters infilled with messages from all over the UK. The reverse of the banner shows the same outline letters, but with empty space, awaiting your message for COP26 addressed to leaders, negotiators, and the world.’

Initially concerned that she might not have enough messages to fill the letters, responses came from all over the UK and messages overspilled from the outlines of the letters.  The banner was sent off ahead of COP26 to the Quakers in Glasgow, who will be able to use and display it ahead of Lin’s arrival in time for the march on 6 November.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

The COP26 side of the Copenhagen 2009 banner, ready for despatch to Glasgow. Photograph Marion Bowman.

As Lin engaged with contributors, she realised that the opportunity to have their message displayed on the banner in Glasgow was both significant and moving.  Through their messages, by means of the banner, people were going to be vicariously present at the demonstrations around COP26 – just as the many contributors to Stitches for Survival and the Loving Earth Project will be materially contributing to this momentous event. While banners will be used primarily to protest, send direct messages and express identities at COP26, banners like Lin’s and many of the textile pieces are also using material culture to express relationality with other humans (particularly future generations), with other-than-human beings, and with the world around us.

From ‘citizen crafters’ to professional creatives, the material culture of climate protest, activism and consciousness raising will play an important part in COP26 – and their creators hope they will continue to make a difference in the months and years to come.

Marion Bowman will be in conversation with Lin about her banner and experiences at COP26 during our online conference on 19 November, Eco-creativity 2021: Art, Music, Ritual and Global Climate Politics | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (open.ac.uk)

Promoting Better Public Understanding of Religion and Worldviews

By Suzanne Newcombe

Religion is an area of great contention. Media – both ‘social’ or traditional – seeks to gain attention by tantalising lines which inflame our passions and tug on our heartstrings. What better for the media to grab our attention, than by drawing attention some of the most deeply felt aspects of our identity and sense of connection with others. Yet identification with traditional, institutionalised religion is fading from public declarations of identity in Britain (see our new OpenLearn course Census Stories for more on this).

As we grapple with how we fit together as a society – what are our shared values and connective rituals? – beliefs continue to grab headlines, drive our behaviour and spark our anxieties.  On a global scale, religious identity continues to be an important element of facing shared global challenges of climate change, migration, and the growing inequalities in health and wealth.  The scale of these challenges means that accurate and sensitive discussions of religion – the beliefs and practices which shape our values and sense of identity – is as important and relevant as ever.

The vision for this project came from the realisation that there is a lot of excellent, but largely under-coordinated and under-resourced work seeking to improve the public discussions around a critical religious literacy. Improving public understanding about the nature of religion and belief, as well as ensuring information about these human practices is accurately conveyed in public discourse, needs a multi-pronged approach. Transforming public understandings requires greater coordination between school-level teachers of Religious Education, university-level educators in the Study of Religion, the media, civil servants and policy makers.

In the summer of 2020, the Open University’s Religious Studies Department and Inform held a virtual roundtable to solidify networks between the many passionate and committed actors trying to improve public understandings about religion and how it needs to be considered in communications for facing many social challenges involving health, security and education.  The Faith and Belief Form shared its specific expertise in promoting community cohesion and promoting strong, productive and positive relations between people of different faiths and no-faith. Also in attendance was the CEO of Culham St Gabriel’s charity; Culham was in the process of strengthening its strategic commitment to promoting the Religious Education Council’s report on Religion and Worldviews (2018). Together with Inform’s commitment to promoting accurate information about minority religions and agile social scientific research team, and the Open University’s commitment to educating wider publics through its unique nationwide, online platforms – the Religion and Worldviews project was collaboratively initiated.

We are almost half-way into this project now. The first output was a ‘Baseline Report’ which provides an overview of the existing reports relative to both Religious Education (RE) and to the perception of religion in public life more generally.  This report has raised a number of key questions about public perceptions of the Study of Religion as a subject. Meanwhile primary research by Inform on perceptions of religious education at British schools by current University Students as well as an independent general population survey commissioned by Culham’s in the summer of 2021, provides valuable evidence that many people find much of value in school-level Religious Education.

We are in the middle of the project and are currently seeking to better understand to what extent Religion and Worldviews proposal might be able to provide a coherent way forward for religious education at school level in England – and what the barriers are toward finding consensus around a more shared vision of the study of religion in schools. This autumn, led by the Faith and Belief Forum, the project is holding a number of focus groups with community groups, SACRES, educational leaders, parents and those who have influence on educational policy to try to determine the barriers to implementing a more vibrant and coherent approach to religious education that is fit for purpose in our contemporary world. The eventual outputs of the project will be a series of resources to help school leaders, civil servants, parents and others ‘outside the classroom’ better articulate a coherent vision of Religion and Worldviews as a way forward for best addressing the variety of competing needs around religious education at this time.  Our Resources Packs should be ready in the summer of 2022.

With the diverse competing interests of religious and secular beliefs and practices, it is hard to achieve consensus on a shared coherent vision for religious education. Yet the need is great. Religious and non-religious beliefs will continue to inform the frameworks of public debate as we move to face the shared global challenges of coping with inequalities of wealth and health as well as the effects of climate change.

It is hoped that this project will help coalesce a better consensus around Religion and Worldviews as being a container which can move largely shared agendas forward. Religious actors as well as university and school-level educators passionately believe in the importance of accurate and sensitive understandings of religious and secular worldviews being presented in public discourse. Alongside other partners, this project hopes to drive this broadly shared agenda forward.

Returning to Earth | Climate Change, COP26 and Indigenous Voices

 By Graham Harvey 

We are now less than a month away from the UK’s hosting of 26th UN Climate Change “Conference of the Parties” (COP26). The OU’s OpenLearn site is presenting free learning resources about climate change from different disciplinary perspectives and how that knowledge and experience may explain and inform the outcomes of COP26. Those outcomes are impossible to predict. Some people remain hopeful that global transformative action will be agreed on – and actually implemented this time. Others remain doubtful that COP26 will result in their ideal future of ecological and social justice and wellbeing.  

The magnitude of the challenges and threats facing Earth’s life are impossible to exaggerate. The latest scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets matters out clearly – and is refreshingly forthright in its insistence that urgent action is needed from governments and others. It is also refreshing in not putting the burden of “saving the planet” on individuals alone.  

There are myriad religious voices addressing the issues. Too many to note here. And too varied to summarise. But there is certainly plenty for a student of religion to research, consider and discuss.  

My interest in Indigenous ceremonies, festivals and performance cultures has led me to collaborate with the Border Crossings intercultural theatre company. In particular, I’m intrigued by the ORIGINS Festival of First Nations which they organise and host every two years in London. They usually bring Indigenous artists, performers, speakers, films and even chefs to London to engage audiences in venues across the city. The COVID pandemic has made the 2021 Festival different: it involves more online events and will continue throughout the year and into 2022.  

However, the 2021 ORIGINS Festival is not all online. Right now, an impressive “totem” (a carved and decorated presentation of the kinship between humans and other species) is travelling across the UK. (You can follow the totem’s journey here.) The totem is called “Latamat” (“Life”) and was carved in Mexico by Jun Tiburcio – a Totonac multi-media artist – specifically to take a message to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. A succinct version of the message is that because all life is related we have responsibilities to live respectfully, to the benefit of all our kin, of whatever species. Jun Tiburcio’s eloquence about totem Latamat expands on that theme and emphasises the urgency of the message. After COP26, totem Latamat will be ceremonially returned to earth at the Crichton near Dumfries. Here, Tiburcio describes the totem’s elements:

 

Totem Latamat is one intervention into discussions about climate and environmental concerns. It is distinctive because it comes from an Indigenous artist and his community. It is not only that people like Jun Tiburcio and his Totonac community have interesting ideas about the world and life. They are also among those most immediately and devastatingly being affected by climate change. One example of this is the damage done to Totonac homes and homeland by a hurricane made extreme as a result of climate change.  

My contribution to the OU’s OpenLearn COP26 Hub says more about Totem Latamat. It ends with the thought that the totem is an encouragement to celebrate life. This encouragement is not unique to Indigenous people – although it is a core theme in Indigenous conversations and ceremonies. It is something that many religious and non-religious people can share. What makes it important now is that it stands in stark contrast to the depressing news of disasters and of the magnitude of the threats facing life. These tend to demotivate people. Encouragement to celebrate our relations and our place in the living community might inspire the urgent actions that will be discussed at COP26.   

The power of religious life outside of institutions

By Claire Wanless

Sociologists have sometimes taken the view that in the absence of hierarchical institutions, religion lacks the ability to sustain itself over generations or to motivate participants to socially significant activity. That is to say that regardless of the value or otherwise of practices and beliefs, religion needs strong institutions to make it functionally viable. It is tempting to use this kind of argument to suggest that the individualized religious and spiritual practice that is increasingly seen in societies like the UK is best regarded as mere personal superstition – an ultimately trivial and socially unimportant private practice. Arguably, to do so is to accept that we need powerful leaders to direct us in order to prevent our society from fragmenting into one ruled primarily by self-interest. My PhD research (recently published in book form) indicated a different conclusion. The subjects of my research were people who felt themselves to be spiritual or religious but who prioritised their own subjective experience over any external religious authority. Many of them were people who had previously been involved with top-down religious institutions and who had then decided to cast their own religious path. They had not rejected religious or spiritual practice as an activity, but they had rejected top-down religious institutions. I found that, far from being isolated in their practice, many of these people took advantage of various kinds of shared practice groups and networks to create their own opportunities for constructive practice and information exchange. This resulted in a far richer and more dynamic spirituality-related culture than you might expect if practitioners were merely indulging in isolated personal superstition. While individuals in this context can take radical ownership of their personal spiritual journeys, they recognise the parallel efforts of their peers to do the same, and they see value in working together. This can give rise to a shared discourse and ethic of mutuality that both aids transmission of ideas and practices and facilitates socially significant activity.

It is important to note that what is transmitted in this kind of context is not best understood as religious truths or identities, but as ideas, practices and similar spiritual resources that are then accepted only to the degree that they are found to be useful. The information exchange that occurs is therefore not only dynamic but highly creative in its operation. While still prioritising their own subjectivity and personal authority over their religious lives, these individuals benefit from a shared approach to the making of (among other things) meaning, moral frameworks and creative purpose.

It is interesting to speculate about the extent to which this kind of association is apparent elsewhere – perhaps alongside the top-down structures of more traditional religious institutions, or among artistic and creative communities in which people see themselves as independent practitioners within a culture of peers. The parallel may be especially striking in fields of grassroots political activism where there is a moral element and a shared desire to change the world for the better. It would be interesting to find out more about the importance and structure of any shared ethic of mutuality among political activists, and particularly where its boundaries lie. Over the last few years we have seen how social media can be used to manipulate us into likeminded bubbles, in which we only talk to those who think like ourselves and see those who are outside of our own bubble as somehow the enemy. Further research on how and why this ethic of mutuality works might help us understand how to break down the silos and create a more open and inclusive political discourse. In the meantime, perhaps each of us could benefit from thinking about our own personal ethic of mutuality, and whether it extends as far as it should.

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Traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Taliban

By Hugh Beattie

Commentators sometimes give the impression that the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001 and have recently taken over the country again, represent traditional Afghan Islam. Of course there are continuities with the past, but the Taliban are a modern phenomenon. Among the main reasons for their emergence are British rule in India followed by its partition and the creation of Pakistan, as well as the cold war, and the support from the West and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states for the anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. The idea that their aim is to return the country to a medieval past is an oversimplification for a number of reasons. Here we look at two in particular, their interpretation of Islam and their political role.

Just a little background first. Afghans are almost entirely Muslim, though Hindus and Sikhs still live in the cities. There were once small Jewish and Armenian communities too, and Ahmadiyyas, inspired by the controversial Muslim modernist and reformer Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), also made some converts. The Muslims are mostly Sunni, but there are some significant Shi‘a communities, both Imami (the dominant strand in Iran) and Nizari Ismaili (who follow the Aga Khan). There are other Shi‘a communities in Afghanistan, but the majority of those practising Imami Shi‘ism are Hazaras, belonging to an ethnic group whose homeland is in central Afghanistan (though many now live in Kabul and in Quetta across the border in Pakistan). Afghan Ismailis mostly live in Badakhshan in the north-east. As in other parts of the Muslim-majority world, there have often been tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘as, particularly the Hazaras. Recently the Taliban destroyed a statue in Bamiyan, a valley in central Afghanistan with a largely Hazara population, to commemorate a Hazara Shi‘a political leader Abdul Ali Mazari, killed by the Taliban in 1995. Bamiyan was known for its two huge statues of the Buddha carved into a cliff face, which were largely destroyed by the Taliban in 2000. A Hazara boy is also the ‘kite-runner’ of the novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini.

Traditional Afghan Islam was very different from the Islam of today’s Taliban – let along ISIS-K, which has gained a foothold in eastern Afghanistan since 2014 (K for Khorasan, a province of the ancient Iranian Sassanian empire which comprised eastern Iran and much of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In particular traditional Afghan Islam combined law and ethics (shari‘a) with Sufi teaching and practice. This Afghan Islam, the scholar Bashir Ahmad Ansari, argues, ‘encouraged peaceful life with justice, compassion, and tolerance among the largely illiterate peoples of the region before the 1970s’ (Ansari 2018, p.37).

Tiles from the shrine of the Khorasani Sufi poet and scholar Abdullah Ansari (d.1089 CE) in Herat in western Afghanistan | https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/context-culture/a-sufi-lodge-a-leaning-minaret-and-a-polymaths-shrine-a-look-at-recent-efforts-to-preserve-and-appreciate-historical-herat/

An important feature of this Afghan Islam, as with popular Islam throughout most of the Muslim-majority world, was the way that Sufi masters were believed to possess miraculous powers and their tombs became places of pilgrimage, shrines (ziyarats) that were visited, particularly by women, in the hope that this would bring healing, good fortune in general, and ultimately salvation. These shrines have played a very important role for hundreds of years; some were located at important pre-Islamic religious locations, and sometimes the practices associated with them incorporated extra-Islamic elements.

A good example of this is the annual ritual of raising a 75 foot high iron pole wrapped in green silk, with colourful scarves attached around the top (known as janda bala kardan), at the supposed tomb of the fourth caliph, Ali, in the Blue Mosque in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. This still takes place on Nowruz, New Year’s Day according to the solar Hijri calendar (March 21), and is always a joyful occasion, a kind of spring festival. Similar rituals on a smaller scale used to take place at a number of other shrines in northern Afghanistan, and in Kabul itself. In the image at the beginning of this article, taken in 2012, we see the standard about to be raised.

The ritual is attended by both Sunni and Shi’a pilgrims. Ansari’s characterisation of traditional Afghan Islam may be a somewhat idealised one, but there is no doubt that it was very different from the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K. Both are opposed to the practices associated with shrines (known as ziyarats) because they see them as non-Muslim in origin, and argue that prayers to Sufi ‘saints’ (pirs) for healing and intercession are sinful because they implicitly deny the oneness of God. During the earlier period of Taliban rule it seems that they often banned Sufi meetings (see e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12539409).

A second difference between traditional Islam in Afghanistan and the Islam of the Taliban and ISIS-K is the extent to which the latter groups have taken a political role. In the past, Sufi saints were sometimes able to use the authority that belief in their spiritual power (karamat) gave them to acquire political influence, and their descendants sometimes inherited this. An important example in Afghanistan has been the Mujaddidi family (linked with the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition). Mujaddidis moved to Afghanistan from India during the 18th century and became very influential, even claiming the hereditary right to crown Afghan rulers at their coronations. The Gailanis, linked with the Qadiriyya Sufi order, are another influential family with inherited religious charisma. But figures like these rarely if ever actually ruled the country.

Since the late 1970s, however, the political importance of religion and men with a religious training has grown. The Taliban themselves mostly belong to the revivalist Deobandi tradition, which developed from an influential seminary (madrasah) found in northern India in 1867. Its founders were determined to resist the modernizing and secularizing pressures that accompanied British rule in India. This was to be achieved by working to ensure that Muslims would continue to live as far as possible according to Islamic principles and Islamic law. After the British withdrawal from India in 1947, Deobandis began to set up seminaries in the new state of Pakistan. During the Afghan jihad in the 1980s they set up many more along the frontier with Afghanistan which were attended by young Afghan male refugees fleeing the Soviet occupation that had begun in 1979. It was and remains these men, led by graduates of seminaries (mullahs), mostly lacking Sufi connections, who are the core of the Taliban.

Taliban rule, therefore, was not and is not simply a return to traditional Islam in Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan became predominantly Muslim, rulers have always proclaimed their support for Islam, but government by men claiming that their religious training and mission entitle them to take control of the country is something new. 

Football, lived religion and public piety

By John Maiden

Last weekend, in the wake of Euro 2021, there was an interesting article by Julian Coman in the Observer concerning the England and Premiership football stars Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. For those of you who don’t follow football (by which I mean ‘soccer’) – and I will resist the temptation to say ‘or have been asleep for the last month’ – these three players helped drive the English football team all the way to the incredible achievement of the final of the tournament, the nation’s first since 1966. The article headline made a further observation: that Rashford, Saka, Sterling and others ‘blaze a trail for black British Christians’.

Coman’s piece sent me off on a couple of thought pathways. First, about the timeliness of the article. Prayers and symbolic gestures (e.g. hands pointing to the sky) seem to me increasingly common in English Premiership football. This is not just about black British footballers who may have a background in ‘black majority churches’ (BMCs) – it is also Catholic and Orthodox footballers (e.g. performing the sign of the cross) of various nationalities and ethnicities, and also Muslims, for example Paul Pogba (of my beloved Manchester United) and Mohamed Salah (great player, shame about his club…).

Such displays of religious piety in the top-flight of English football are not new. I can remember watching Manchester United from the Stretford Paddock as a teenager and noticing a few players, some British but often those of visiting Italian and Polish clubs, signing the cross. However, anecdotally, I would say that in the last 10-15 years the frequency and visibility of these personal, ‘lived’ religious rituals on the pitch has grown markedly.

One might conjecture (as does Coman) that the Premier League’s explosion of wealth, and the number of African and South American players who have signed for English teams. These have included pentecostals, Catholics and Muslims, whose personal rituals have made piety more common place and ‘acceptable’ in football subculture. If so, perhaps a knock-on effect has been that British footballers with religious backgrounds are inspired or emboldened to express individual devotion on the field of play. Whatever the factors involved, my point is that in our celebrity and sports-driven culture, it is probably footballers who offer the most high-profile manifestation of religious practice and belief in British public life. An estimated 31 million people watched the Euro 2021 final in the UK; but millions also watch the Premier League and all the various domestic and European knock-out tournaments every week. As well as watching these players’ goals, tackles and saves, we are observing their everyday religion.

I want to stress again that none of the above is based on hard data, but rather my own subjective observations. However, more concretely the Coman article got me thinking about my research on the construction of wider public perceptions of Black Christianity – and specifically the black majority churches – in Britain. I have recently published on this in an article for Twentieth Century British History. I can’t rehearse the argument fully in a blog post, but the basic point is that in the post-war period, the press and the leaders of historic mainline churches in Britain were very slow to pay serious attention to the BMCs and their impact on the urban religious landscape. At the end of the 1970s, many white liberal Christians and commentators still tended to think of black majority churches as ‘ghetto congregations’.

However, around this time, with the growing assertion of Black consciousness amongst church leaders, and the efforts of a minority of white Christians to adopt a non-paternalistic attitude towards these congregations, an alternative narrative began to emerge – of BMCs raising the possibility of resacralisation in a social context of rapid secularisation. As the radical theologian Trevor Beeson wrote in The Guardian in 1979, “in these African and West Indian churches lies the best hope of re-Christianizing the British nation and in helping the weary churches of these islands to re-discover the true character of Christian faith and worship.”

With the coming of multiculturalism in public policy, increasingly BMCs were thought of as institutions providing community leadership, organisation and social capital (see for example, the BBC documentary ‘Life and death the Pentecostal way’). The Coman article contributes also to this evolving narrative. Media and academic representation of BMCs in the 1960s and 1970s tended to depict embattled, insular congregations. Now Black Christian traditions are described as being about ‘the embodiment of faith, how you live out what you say in a Sunday service.’ As footballers are increasingly thought to offer moral leadership in civil society, due attention needs to be given to the religious influences which have shaped them.

Notes on Dreaming 

By Paul-François Tremlett

I have written about dreams in relation to anthropology and religion before (Tremlett 2008 and 2017), and I return to dreams here spurred on in part by the spate of stories in popular media about dreams and the pandemic (e.g. Renner 2020). Pandemic-dream stories, if I can call them that, sometimes rehearse a basic opposition between the idea that dreams are airy nothings and meaningless arbitrary associations on the one hand, and the idea that dreams are producers, performers and generators on the other.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can find that opposition at work in late nineteenth and early twentieth century writings about the origins of religion. For example, according to the British anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), it was precisely the desire to explain the appearance, in dreams, of “human shapes” (Tylor 1903 I, 428), that led to the development of animism which was, or so Tylor claimed, the original form of religion. This view was vehemently opposed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) who argued that dreams leave only “vague impressions … in the memory” (Durkheim 1915, 58; 1960, 82) meaning that it was unlikely that anyone would spend much time dwelling or reflecting on them and, if they did, it was to no purpose anyway. As you may have guessed, Durkheim had his own theory about the origins of religion! 

Perhaps what is most interesting is that Tylor’s general theory of religion is typically represented as a rationalist theory, yet he locates the origins of religion in an irrational force (the dream), while Durkheim’s general theory of religion is routed through ideas about emotion and affect, yet he says thinking about dreams is a waste of time that could otherwise be spent on more productive pursuits (a rather utilitarian or rationalist perspective). In other words, when it comes to dreams, Tylor and Durkheim swap places: the utilitarian becomes the irrationalist and vice versa. What does any of this have to do with Covid? If, like me, you’ve been experiencing some pretty weird dreams these past months, try to enjoy the ride. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that dreams are cryptic machines. They make stuff, it’s just not clear why or to what end.  

  

References
Durkheim, E. (1915) 
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (trans), J. W. Swain, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Durkheim, E. (1960) Les Formes Elémentaires de la Vie Religieuse, Paris: PUF. 

Renner, R. (2020)  The pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why. | National Geographic 

Tremlett, P-F. (2008) ‘Anthropology, Dreams, Epistemology’ in Anthropology Today 24 (6): 27-29. 

Tremlett, P-F. (2017) ‘Deconstructing the Survival in E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture: From Memes to Dreams and Bricolage’ in Edward Burnett Tylor: Religion and Culture, London: Bloomsbury, 179-194.  

Tylor, E. B. (1903) Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom Vols. I, 4th  Ed, London: John Murray.